“The culprit and the life giver is the dung and its smell of fresh air”, “Dr. Zhivago”, Boris Pasternak.
Today, April 2. 2018, I was discharged from the hospital after a mini-stroke; the doctors told me I had dodged a bullet, explaining that with a full stroke you lose function for the long term, if not permanently, while with a ‘transient ischemic attack’ (TIA), the symptoms are temporary. Nonetheless, the hospital staff clearly took it seriously and explored my condition thoroughly; they administered an MRI, three CT scans (of head, neck and chest), and an Ultra Sound of my heart. These explorations appeared to be guided by the likelihood that my temporary eclipse of brain function (I couldn’t read, communicate or recite the alphabet), was most likely caused by a flake of plaque setting sail down an artery until it rammed into a too tight corner of my brain. The messages I took away were: “Make life changes where I can” and “Seize the day”.
I have been contemplating writing a book (as some of you have probably gathered, since I have been asserting it to the heavens for several weeks) and I have been gradually nudging my way toward a view that—even if I dream of serving a lofty purpose by sharing the vision that I have personally found wise and healing—I can’t expect many people to struggle through “yet one more system of philosophy” (to borrow a phrase used by George Santayana in his preface to “Skepticism and Animal Faith”). So the idea of writing some kind of memoir arose, as a way of making my story more personal and—in sharing the kinds of pitfalls, dead ends, and dark nights of the soul that are all too common in a human life—to aim for a certain kind of universality.
Rereading the pages I wrote before my weekend visit to the hospital, in which I began exploring a dark time when it felt like my life was hanging in the balance, I imagined that there are two bookends which separate what many of us struggle through in our youth and what those of us lucky enough to get that far experience as we grow older. Perhaps there is a natural symmetry between finding life unlivable when we are young, and—50 years later—recognizing that the life we have learned to value isn’t going to last forever.
It was in the late spring of 1976, if I remember correctly. My parents might have remembered the timing more precisely, but they both moved onto another plane decades ago. The time I want to recall, and if possible inhabit to the extent that memory allows, must have been during springtime because a few months later I was laying my sleeping bag down in a hilltop cemetery overlooking the harbor of the fishing village of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
I’m not sure I will succeed in retrieving very clear memories of this time in my life, for the simple reason that I was floundering–dog-paddling in a rip tide. A time of focused intention, which I suspect provides the best source material when we try to recollect it years later–if I had ever experienced such a thing–had given way to a sense that just getting by was the best I could hope for.
As with any life story, or even any significant turning point in life, there are many places I could begin. (If you’re going to talk about the Great Fire of San Francisco, do you start with the flammable housing material, the dry Santa Anna winds, or do you go straight to images of children trapped and dogs racing down the streets in terror?)
In my case, a fire wasn’t involved, although some years earlier my apartment did have a fire–serious enough that two men, trapped by stairwells up which flames were raging in a building without working fire escapes, died that night. That fire actually helped nudge me into a new life cycle, perhaps fueled by a bit of positive karma when I caught a woman who jumped from her burning apartment into my arms.
It wasn’t until several years later, like Mother Hubbard, that I found my ‘positive karma’ cupboard was again quite bare.
Let me start with the moment when, standing inside an elevator, I was about to leave the office where I had worked for the past several years. My supervisor, an attractive, compassionate woman–with whom I had spent the past hour at the end of our work days talking about a change in my work load to address the great stress I had been under for the past several weeks–was waving to me from the hallway through the open elevator doors. We’d worked it out; the elevator doors were now closing; she was smiling; our talk had yielded a good solution and cleared up, almost miraculously, the silent despair that had had me, during lunch breaks, walking onto the roof top of the Montreal skyscraper where I worked, and staring at the asphalt streets many floors below. All that stress had mercifully dissolved under her kind understanding and her permission for me to return to my old role as a simple programmer.
The elevator doors had something like a foot more to go before the rubber seals would snicker closed, the cables would take up the descending weight of the elevator car and, exiting in the lobby, I’d walk home and resume my now happier life. Thank goodness for the therapeutic blessing that flows from sharing life’s obstacles with another human being.
Then, with the speed of a hand reaching out to grab a table top when our feet slip on a soapy floor, both my arms shot forward between the closing doors and my wrists forced them back open. I think that we had still been looking at one another through the gap until that moment, and now—with a very different expression—she heard me say, “My best friend killed himself and I don’t want to do that!”
We returned to her office and agreed that my frustrations ran deeper than the computer project deadline I had been dreading. We decided, mutually, that I would submit my notice and move onto my next phase of life.
Then there followed for me, while I continued to work my remaining weeks there, the series of ancillary steps familiar to anyone who decides to move to a different location, change occupation or end a relationship. In my case, I was single and–now unemployed–it shouldn’t have involved all that much to uproot myself from thirty years living in the environs of Montreal Island–first with my parents in the West End suburb of Point Claire and then, after college for a decade or so, in a series of downtown Montreal apartments where I worked at computer programming jobs, studied English Literature, and lived in several different situations, sometimes alone and for about four years with Lois.
She and I were asleep in my apartment around 3:00 am one night when someone pounded on my door and then continued running down the stairs. It was the eve of Saint Jean Baptist Day and many French speakers were treating it as an opportunity to celebrate their separatist agenda, dedicated to preserving their language and culture. I’ve always assumed that the fire which cost two lives was the work of someone in the angry fringe of that movement, who suffered from their own independent violence and frustration.
But for me the impact was of clear benefit. The fire made it impossible for me to continue living independently in my own apartment and led to the beginning of one of several cycles that I have experienced at regular intervals in my life. Peering back now, through several cycles swirling across the intervening years, I see Lois and me moving in together (my first time setting up a household with a companion), me returning to McGill University to study English Literature, and five short stories being published in the Antigonish Review as well as a poem in the Wascana Review. But, as seems to be the case with all the cycles I have experienced, it’s as if the karmic gas pump eventually runs dry and the soul finds itself devoid of the moral nutrients needed to climb up one more hill. Instead, unless we’re suddenly rescued, time pushes us off the ledge and we fall into deep space with our usual propellers spinning in a vacuum.
The ancillary steps I needed in 1976 to jump start my next stage in life shouldn’t have been all that traumatic. It’s true that I had not yet resolved Gary’s death (he was the friend about whose death I called out through the elevator doors), nor the fact that he had come looking for me the night he hung himself and had not found me in my old place because I wasn’t there anymore. And I didn’t feel good about moving out from the home where I had lived with Lois for years. Gary came looking for me because he and his companion had just separated that same day. His death must have left a pall over me, although I may not have realized it at the time, but life revealed in the next months that a trail of darkness had caught my scent and was getting closer.
I’m making an unscheduled stop to briefly mention Gary’s death, which was the suicide I had in mind in my novel “Falling on the Bright Side”. In real life, it affected the woman he had been living with for many years so deeply that I suspect they would have stayed together if Gary had connected with me that evening and they had then had time to reconnect—as if nothing had happened. She had told him that she could no longer be the only one who contributed to their lives together—and indeed he had grown so alienated from the world that when he ventured out of their apartment he wouldn’t wear his glasses, so that he didn’t have to see the people passing on the street. After his death, all she wanted was to have him there to care for.
I no longer remember the details of my move out of my apartment. I know I only took two bags with me: a backpack and a sailor’s duffle bag. But I do remember three significant events that occurred before I moved out. Perhaps they are connected to one another, foreshadowed by the death of Gary and my split up with Lois, and were an outward manifestation of the guilt I felt for my failure to be present for the needs of others.
One day during this time of transition, I decided it was time for me to read through the journals I had kept almost every day for the previous decade. Perhaps I was just wondering if I should pack them as part of my move. Or perhaps I was hoping to draw reassurance that over the years there had been a thread of meaning to guide me into the future.
I was devastated by what they revealed of a mind utterly oblivious to its own disharmony. The experience was so appalling that I left work early (this was some days after I had given notice at the Bell Canada job), in order to catch the garbage pickup from the alley behind my apartment building that afternoon. When I returned home, I added the dozen or so volumes of the journal to my garbage can and carried it down to the alley. I can still see the beige, hard covered, college notebooks, each with at least 100 pages.
My apartment had a metal fire escape and a balcony which overlooked the alleyway along which the city refuse truck would come that afternoon and where my own trashcan now awaited. I finally heard the truck’s growl, as it started and stopped along its route in the distance. I stationed myself at the edge of the balcony, my hands gripping the metal railing, and waited for the truck to pull into my alley and come to a stop underneath.
Eventually the truck arrived and the man riding on the side jumped down, grabbed my can and tossed the contents into the back. It may have been fortuitous coincidence– because I don’t imagine that every can warrants the operation that compresses everything in the truck’s hopper, any more than every pea gets its own separate mastication– but the garbage man, after laying my empty can back down next to the brick wall, pulled the lever at the back of the truck and then the jaws of compaction went to work.
Lifting free of the tossing, tumbling chaos of my neighborhood trash, I saw waves of pages, each covered with tight, neurotic handwriting, with–known only to me–each page voicing the impatient commands of an unhappy superego shouted out to his missing cohorts: “Read a chapter of Santayana”, “Play the flute for 30 minutes”, “Get up at 6:00 am”, etc. After I had read through several patches of these journals, from different time periods, it became devastatingly evident that I was spying on the mind of someone frozen in patterns of repetition , utterly deaf to any feedback. The undeniable conclusion was that my journal entries were nothing more than the braying of a frustrated animal living alone in a stable with no idea of what it meant to pull together as a team.
Looking ahead from that moment, it was years before I bought another notebook and began, cautiously–always waiting for an inner voice to show up, capable of taking responsibility for actually carrying out, and accepting the commitment to carry out, the promises which another, less well-grounded aspect of his person, had for so many years callously shouted out to an empty theater.
I’m not sure that I can still capture what I felt as I watched the record of ten years of my life descending into the maw of the growling beast beneath me and get torn apart, so that the tattered remains could head off to the landfill. I’m pretty sure my complex feelings included relief. I can certainly affirm that it was a moment in which I registered a kind of vow—although I don’t think I knew what a vow was back then—considering that I have never again completely slid into such utter lack of awareness of the need to connect intention and behavior in a human life. (And this was long before I had even heard a rumor of the “Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path” and its first four steps of Vision, Intention, Speech, and Action).
This shift in attitude not only manifested in the fact that I didn’t write in a journal again for years. The legacy of that moment, standing on my fire-escape (and it now occurs to me that I was escaping from my own inner conflagration) ran deeper in the life that followed than the simple issue of my long-standing habit of whining between the book covers of a school notebook.
A month or so later I was standing on a dock in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I had just been turned down by the captain of one of the fleet of scallop boats which put to sea for two week voyages to drag their nets across the sea bottom; with the deck hands opening the shells (familiar from the Venus de Milo painting) and filing the ship’s hole with bags of scallop meat (familiar to me from a delicious dish, “Coquille Saint Jack”, served in a nice French restaurant in Old Montreal where Lois and I dined in happier times), and then packing those bags on ice. I had little reason to expect that the captain would snap me up for his crew. When a gawky, six-foot five-inch tall man, as pale as a scallop fresh out of the shell of his big city cubicle, shows up, why would a leader of robust, sea-weathered men whose rubber boots actually fit their feet (mine, the largest available in Lunenburg, were at least two sizes too small and I shudder to imagine spending two weeks in them bending over a counter under a roof half a foot lower than my head): with men accustomed to holding their lunch down when their boat is rocking and pitching in ten foot waves. But when the captain, after the briefest of look overs, told me that he had a full crew, a familiar wave of discouragement swept through me. The message I heard was, “Life has nothing new for me and now I’ve given up everything I had and everything I’ve ever known. I’m done for.” That voice was miserably familiar, like a drunken friend with no job who keeps you up drinking all night when you are trying to get your life on track. And there was another reason that I can still vividly remember that moment on the dock, after the captain had left and headed into town. An unfamiliar voice spoke up with an ardent tone of certainty, “I won’t allow this kind of cowardice anymore.”
From that moment onward I have almost always denied myself the bogus comfort of telling myself that I’m only sticking around to spare my parents the pain of their son’s untimely death. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I can get to Lunenburg, a dark night of the soul awaits me back in Montreal, in the apartment where a few days before I had destroyed all my journals.
The relief of destroying those volumes felt real; and after that act of house cleaning I might have considered that I really just needed to reform the way I was currently living. However, even if I had decided that no great external change was actually needed at this point, I now had no job and in another week or two I would have no place to live. My life felt like an abstract projection which now didn’t even have the user’s guide of my journals to document what I had patched together over the years. The steps that I had taken away from the shelter of my known and familiar world seemed to affirm that my current life was done. I was afraid of what might lie ahead and felt unqualified to be anyone different than the person I’d been or to do anything different than what I already knew how to do; but I’d already rejected the familiar and had left myself no way forward but to step into an unknown future.
It was soon after that, during this precarious time, that a poet friend, Peter, dropped by for a visit. In the course of our evening together, Peter shared some news about a friend of his who lived in the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal, close to the US border. Peter had taken me to visit this man some weeks or months earlier. (I apologize for not having a very fine ruler when it comes to times long past; it’s as if an elastic strip has been over-stretched and the only events that remain visible are those that have survived the decay of plodding, sequential time and which are still available to memory because they have been recorded in another more organic kind of time, a time in which traumatic pitfalls and ecstatic realizations are the coins of the realm.)
I know I can no longer avoid jumping feet first into these memories of a time when a friend’s innocent story plunged me into a freefall of hopelessness, and when I then grabbed hold, or rather noticed the presence, of the light into which I was born. These memories both seem relevant to bring back now, a few days after my mind stopped working for a few hours this past weekend. I feel that to even be able to write these sentences now is a great gift. In a sense this is the second time I have been nudged, as an adult, toward the possibility of crossing over and having to leave behind the things that I love. And as a human being living on Planet Earth, there was also that third encounter when, at the age of two, in another spring time—of 1944–I drowned in the cold waters of Lake Ontario. But it’s the Montreal spring of 1976 that is waiting for me, and will be waiting for you, God willing, if you drop by here next week.